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The Seven Core Tenets of Anticonventional Thinking

The Seven Core Tenets of Anticonventional Thinking

Anticonventional thinking (ACT) is a new approach to creativity designed to address the weaknesses of brainstorming and creative problem solving (CPS) by implementing the latest research and observation into how individuals and groups solve problems through creativity. (You can download and my original paper on ACT here.)

Meanwhile, the seven key tenets of ACT are....

  1. Purposefully reject conventional thinking in favour of the unconventional thinking throughout the creative process and not just in idea generation. This is the key to ACT. Most people’s minds are programmed to do the opposite: reject unconventional thinking in favour of conventional thinking. After all, conventional approaches tend to be safe, socially acceptable and well tested. However, by definition, they are not creative. Hence, the secret to ACT is to trick the mind into doing the opposite of what it normally does. ACT is about training your mind to learn to reject the conventional in favour of the unconventional.

    Moreover, ACT is not just about trying to have unconventional ideas. Rather it is about seeking the unconventional at every step of the process of solving problems or achieving goals through creativity. Learn to look at the problems and goals, for which you seek ideas, in new, unconventional ways. Look for unconventional insights and inspirations that can spark new thinking. When generating ideas reject conventional ideas for unconventional solutions. Rejecting the conventional in favour of the unconventional is the core concept behind ACT.

  2. Focus your creative energy on understanding the issue, problem or goal and not on generating ideas. When faced with a problem, most people look only at the surface of the problem and immediately try to find ideas. Do not do this. Rather, spend time deconstructing the problem in order to understand better the core issues behind it. Look at the problem from different perspectives. Try to see the problem from other people’s perspectives or even imagine you are the problem. Likewise, ask yourself how the unconventional insights that you have gathered might change the nature or interpretation of the problem.

    Spend a lot of time on this step. Once you really understand the problem and can look at it from various perspectives, generating creative solutions is remarkably easy.

  3. Formulate a challenge or call to action that is provocative and encourages unconventional solutions. Rather than ask, “What new features might we add to this product?”, ask “How can we make holding our product as sensuous as holding your lover’s hand?” Rather than ask “How can I get a good job in this economy?” ask “How can I make myself irresistible to my dream employer?” Do you see how more provocative challenges such as these inspire more creativity?

    When possible, rather than posing a challenge, make a call to action. Instead of asking “In what ways might we improve the shopping experience for our customers?”, demand “Design the most exciting shopping experience on the planet! Something so exciting even men will never want to leave our shops!”, demand

    Using superlatives (best, most, biggest, etc), unconventional metaphors and extreme language (sensual, incredible, legendary, etc) are great ways to make challenges and calls to action more provocative

    If you are comfortable doing so, go ahead and change the formulation of the challenge or call to action while solutions are being generated. This can inspire new thinking and ideas.

  4. Disagreement, debate and defence, the three Ds are all good for creativity. Really! In spite of what you have learned in brainstorming sessions, arguing about the viability of ideas during the idea generation phase makes people think more about the ideas, enables you to reject non-viable ideas immediately and allows people to defend and develop ideas that may initially seem weak but which have great potential. This last point is important. If in a brainstorm, an apparently weak idea is generated, it will inevitably be disposed of during evaluation.

    In ACT, if the same weak idea is suggested others are likely to criticise it. If they do, the person responsible or anyone else can defend the idea and develop it in more detail. As a result, a seeming ‘loser’ idea becomes a very creative one. This does not happen when there is no debate about ideas.

    However, debate in the creative process needs to be respectful. Hence, I offer three rules:

    1. Always criticise boring ideas. You don’t want any of them slowing you down.

    2. Criticism must be respectful and address the idea and not the person suggesting it. An idea may be called ‘daft’ a person may not be!

    3. When an idea has been criticised, the person suggesting it or anyone else must be permitted to defend the idea.


    In addition, if a participant in an ACT group is senior to others (for example, a manager in a company or a professor among students), she should make it clear from the beginning that she expects to hear criticism of her ideas and will be very disappointed if she does not. Otherwise, people may be reluctant to criticise her ideas.

  5. Work on generating a small number of developed solutions or concepts rather than long lists (or stacks of sticky-notes) of ideas. Long lists of ideas typically generated during brainstorms inevitably include way too many boring ideas, are an administrative hassle to deal with and very often the most unconventional and provocative idea are lost among the mediocre suggestions of incremental improvement. The only value a long list of ideas provides is a metric that people can get excited about: “Golly! We generated 7,432 and a half ideas!” This ignores the fact that boring ideas, duplicate ideas and boring duplicates comprise 7,362 of those ideas and the remaining 70 are incremental improvements. Worse, some unlucky person will have to look at all those ideas when she could be doing something far more productive!

    Instead, ACT aims to develop a very few – perhaps just one – creative solutions in some detail. As an alternative to describing the solutions in words, participants could be asked to weave stories (describe a girl who has just opened the packaging of our new cellphone. What does she hold in her hands? How does she feel about it?). They can be given materials such as Lego, building blocks Styrofoam, paper and tape, and be asked to build a solution. They can be given large sheets of paper or whiteboards and be invited to draw solutions. All of these approaches push people to develop ideas into coherent concepts rather than a list ideas.

  6. Reject boring, conventional ideas. Don’t even bother writing them down.

    They are boring. Work only with unconventional, exciting, outrageous ideas. If an idea makes you yawn, dump it. If it makes you laugh, develop it!

    One of the classic rules of brainstorming is to include every idea that comes to mind. The theory behind this is that once brainstormers divest themselves of boring ideas, they will come up with creative ones. The truth is, your mind has a censor which sits in the the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions of your brain. When most people start trying to generate creative ideas, this part of the brain actually becomes more active than usual. Why? Because it is rejecting ideas!

    The best way to deal with your brain’s censor is to trick it! Convince it to reject boring conventional ideas in favour of outrageous, unconventional ones.

  7. Your creative solutions must be evaluated by strict criteria and not by the vague notion of “the best idea”. And there must absolutely and positively be no voting for the best idea! To do so would ensure that the most outrageous, unconventional and creative ideas are rejected in favour or boring, conventional ideas! Why does this happen? Because, the most popular ideas in a large group are seldom the most creative or relevant.

    So, unless your company CEO puts every business decision to vote as a matter of company policy, do not even think about voting on which solutions are best! Evaluate the solutions according to predefined criteria.

Anticonventional Thinking Training and Facilitation

Would you like me to give a workshop on ACT in your company? I can teach you and your colleagues how ACT works in an interactive workshop that combines a lecture, discussion and a lot of group exercises that enable you to put ACT to practice immediately! Learn more about my ACT workshops here or contact me here. I'd really enjoy working with you!


References and Further Reading

This list includes my initial paper on ACT as well as some of the papers that inspired it, usually by questioning an assumption about creative thinking and then testing it in a clinical setting.

  1. Baumgartner, Jeffrey (2011) “Anticonventional Thinking”, http://www.creativejeffrey.com/act/ACTinaNutshell.pdf

  2. CJ Limb, AR Braun (2008) “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.

  3. Kenneth M. Heilman, Stephen E. Nadeau and David O. Beversdorf “Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms”, Neurocase 2003, Vol. 9, No. 5, pp. 369–379

  4. William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky;; “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2009, Vol 96, No 5, pp 1047- 1061).

  5. Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-086.

  6. Matthew J. Salganik,1,2* Peter Sheridan Dodds,2* Duncan J. Watts (2006) “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market”; Science 311, 854 ; DOI: 10.1126/science.1121066 (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/311/5762/854.pdf -- PDF document)

  7. Nicholas W. Kohn and Steven M. Smith (2010) “Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming” by; Applied Cognitive Psychology; 29 March 2010 (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123329584/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0)

Want to Discuss This With Me?

If so, get in touch. I'd love to chat about it with you!



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium